Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Fifty years after the famous Inchon landing

The following is the second of two articles by Harvey Stockwin on the landing of American troops in Inchon, Korea, in the early stages of the Korean War.

HONG KONG: The American Eighth Army objected to the withdrawal of Marine regiments from defending the Pusan Perimeter in order to take part in what was obviously an extremely hazardous operation.

Yet MacArthur never wavered in his insistence that the landing should take place on Sept. 15.

The end result was that the First Battle of Inchon was fought on Aug. 23 -- in the conference room of the Dai Ichi Building in Toyko's Marunouchi district where MacArthur had his headquarters.

By a strange, and probably not accidental, coincidence two Marine Generals strongly opposed to the landing, were not present at the conference, or were not invited. But the Army and the Navy Chiefs of Staff had flown in from Washington to join many other Admirals and Generals in one last effort to dissuade MacArthur from taking what they saw as too big a risk.

One Admiral asserted: "the best I can say for the operation is that it not impossible".

MacArthur listened to the criticisms puffing away on his corncob pipe. He then delivered a passionate 45-minute oration which turned that First Battle of Inchon decisively in his favor.

Crucially MacArthur made the criticisms against the operation into a strong argument for continuing, not abandoning, it.

"The very arguments you have made as to the impracticalities involved will tend to insure for me the element of surprise," he was reported as saying. "For the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt. If you -- experienced American specialists in amphibious operations -- think Inchon is almost impossible, then so will the communists".

Methodically, MacArthur demolished all the opposition arguments, using historical parallels to great effect, before concluding with a typical flourish as his voice sank to a whisper, "I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die. Inchon will succeed, and we will save 100,000 lives. We shall land at Inchon, and I will crush them".

Which is, of course, exactly what happened. An intrepid Navy lieutenant, Eugene Clarke, relit a disused lighthouse to guide the way for the 260 ships of the Inchon armada.

The heavy guns of four cruisers, two British and two American, pulverized Wolmi-do with a two-day bombardment.

The North Koreans failed to counter attack in the crucial 12 hours, made necessary by the tidal range, between the early morning Marine landing on Wolmi-do, and the Marines landing in the evening on Red and Blue beach, before attacking Inchon town.

Kimpo airport was captured two days later and Seoul itself was handed back to the South Korean administration by MacArthur himself in a ceremony in Seoul on Sept. 29.

Caught between the anvil of the Eighth Army breaking out of the Pusan perimeter, and the hammer of MacArthur's troops interdicting their supply lines, the NKPA disintegrated and fled.

So why did MacArthur -- against all the odds -- push for the Inchon landing so vigorously? For his detractors, it was his massive ego, and belief in his own infallibility.

For his supporters, it was his strategic grasp and his audacity. Both sides miss two crucial factors -- MacArthur's knowledge of history, and his reliance on his intuition.

Much has been made of MacArthur's use of the parallel of the British storming of the heights of Abraham to capture Quebec in 1759, as he won the First Battle of Inchon in the Dai Ichi Building.

As those cruisers opened fire on Wolmi-do, MacArthur noted that it was the 191st anniversary of that Quebec battle. MacArthur was also guided by Asian history.

He was probably the only American general who knew that the Chinese, the Russians and the Japanese, the other major East Asian powers, had all chosen, at various times, to enter Korea through Inchon (though generally through unopposed landings). For MacArthur at least, Inchon was historically a place of strategic significance.

But given his intuition, MacArthur would not have appreciated the doctrine popular in today's Pentagon, that you only strike when you can bring massive force to bear.

For MacArthur, you strike when you know you can win -- and his intuition told him that the North Koreans had left themselves open to defeat by leaving their flank relatively unguarded at Inchon.

In fact, the same intrepid Navy lieutenant Clarke made a risky personal reconnaissance and confirmed that MacArthur's intuition was correct a few days before the landings actually took place.

But the great untold Inchon story is that MacArthur's intuition, about North Korean weakness, was nearly defeated by Mao Zedong's intuition.

According to recent historical research, as the North Koreans faced stalemate around Pusan, Zhou Enlai detailed a section head in the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, one Lei Yingfu, to forecast what the Americans would do.

After studying the issue, Lei relayed his judgment that the US would try to mount an amphibious operation at one of six places but that MacArthur would probably chose Inchon.

Zhou ordered Lei to brief Mao Zedong on the same day that MacArthur was "fighting" in the Dai Ichi Building. Mao's intuition quickly picked up the validity of Lei's estimate and ordered that the forecast be immediately passed on to North Korean President Kim Il-sung.

Just to make sure, Mao ordered the information be passed to Kim on two channels rather than just one. Not to be outdone, Kim's Russian advisers also warned Kim that the Americans would attack from the sea.

MacArthur's intuition about North Korean weakness was born out by events because Kim Il-sung ignored all these warnings from the Chinese and the Russians. We shall probably never know why.

Had Kim heeded Mao's warning, Asia today might well be a very different place. Instead, Inchon was one crucial step in the process whereby both South Korea and Taiwan are today vibrant economies and developing democracies, and the reunification of both Korea and China has, as yet, proved an elusive dream.

Yet, in one crucial way, MacArthur did not act on his own intuition in the weeks after the Inchon landing succeeded.

As he was deluged with praise for the Inchon success, MacArthur admitted to a friend that the operation would be remembered as long as military strategy was studied but "it would not be considered one of the decisive battles of the world if the Chinese Communists entered the Korean War."

Once again, how right he was. Even before the Inchon landing, China was preparing to do just that.